John Osmond says the Labour leader needs to recognise that next year’s referendum and Assembly election will be a seamless campaign and seize the opportunity
The referendum on further powers for the National Assembly, to be held next 3 March, presents a challenge and an opportunity for political leadership. In his article in the current issue of the IWA’s journal, Agenda, on how the referendum should be fought from Labour’s point of view Mark Drakeford, Rhodri Morgan’s former political adviser, rightly points out that the campaign will merge seamlessly into the National Assembly elections, being held two months later on 6 May. The party or parties most closely associated with a successful outcome in the referendum campaign stand to benefit in the Assembly election as well.
Labour has had an ambivalent attitude towards devolution ever since the slow process that led to the creation of the Assembly began in earnest in the late 1950s. For more than half a century the party divided into broadly two camps. One has seen Welsh identity as a threat to Labour identity. The other has seen Wales and devolution as an arena within which social democratic values, especially as they affect health and education, can be allowed greater rein than if complete sovereignty still resided at Westminster.
Until the early to mid 2000s the former tendency had the upper hand. But since the first elections to the Assembly in 1999 the latter has been growing in strength. The tipping point came in the wake of the 2007 Assembly election when a special Welsh Labour conference endorsed the One Wales coalition agreement with Plaid Cymru. The leadership of Welsh Labour now firmly resides in Cardiff Bay rather than Westminster where it was notable that not a single Welsh MP managed to get elected to Labour’s shadow cabinet this Autumn.
The referendum in early March will not be held in the most propitious circumstances. February is not a good month for campaigning. Dark nights and bad weather lead to poor turnouts. By then, too, the coalition government at Westminster is likely to be extremely unpopular as the impact of the public spending squeeze accelerates, with the attendant misery of cuts in services and job losses in both the public and private sectors. Since the public sector forms about 60 per cent of Welsh GDP we can expect to be one of the worst affected parts of the UK.
When things are going badly people tend to blame the government. So far as the referendum is concerned a lot will be depend on how far Welsh voters differentiate the Welsh from the UK government. If Cardiff Bay is tarred with the same brush as Westminster the outlook for further powers being endorsed may be bleak. On the other hand, if the Labour-led government in Cardiff can separate itself from the Conservative-led government in London and tell a different story about insulating Wales from even worse effects of the cuts then the outcome should be more hopeful.
In this endeavour a lot rests on the shoulders of First Minister Carwyn Jones. He should be planning now to put the month of February aside and spend it in a battle bus touring the 40 Welsh constituencies. Each day should culminate in a rally and social gathering with entertainment in key centres across Wales. These occasions should be an opportunity to present broad cross-party and wider civil society and cultural support for the Assembly having the tools it needs to carry out its work. At each event Carwyn Jones should be given a platform to present the middle ground, common sense case that his own convictions and personality underline. It would be a great opportunity for him to transform himself into the national figure he deserves to be. It would also be a great opportunity for his party to demonstrate that it is comfortable with devolution and united in making it work for Wales. Carwyn and Labour should seize the chance with both hands.